When she found herself missing Drusilla, Darla realised it was time to hire a maid. There was only so much one could do for oneself, after all. The S-bend silhouette alone was the very devil to achieve unaided.
Sitting in her dark little parlour, after dismissing yet another failed candidate sent by the agency– a poor specimen, straight from the farm, pasty-faced and nervous and whose fingernails were bitten down to the quick – Darla regretted her decision to leave Angelus's progeny behind and cut all ties with them.
Yes, Spike could be insolent and had an unerring nose for trouble, but he'd proved useful on occasion. Women's voices might be listened to more readily now in some parts of the world, but that was not the case in the Balkans. Travel there would have been very inconvenient without him.
Besides, having an entourage, no matter how ill-turned out, added to her status, and Spike had been willing enough to run errands for her as long as the way led him near a tavern. Drusilla meanwhile, for all her madness, was a competent enough hairdresser.
Darla glanced down at the letter on her writing desk, the address written in Spike's spidery copperplate, postmarked Istanbul. She had no idea how they'd discovered her, but the letter required an answer. Should she tell them to forget her, or to come to Paris and join her?
Rising from her chair, she walked over to the window and gazed out onto the rain-soaked street. She had found a room with a view for herself this time, but the view didn't please her. Everything seemed grey and empty, pedestrians hurrying past with their heads down, sad, leafless trees drooping their branches towards the pavements.
Why Paris? she asked herself, for the hundredth time, and for the hundredth time she berated herself for knowing the answer.
Trying to recapture your youth, Darla? When did you become a romantic?
She recalled that she had laughed at Baudelaire and his milieu, with its overpowering taint of opium and syphilis. But back then she had had someone with whom to share the joke. Now…
She leaned her cheek against the cold glass, the raindrops running down the outer pane like the reflections of invisible tears. It was so long since she'd been alone.
Her reverie was interrupted by a knock on the door. She glanced up at the clock; half-past five on a dismal Parisian afternoon in winter, the sun set, the fire not yet made up, and time to interview the final candidate. If this one wouldn't do, Darla decided, she would write to Spike, telling him and Drusilla to come quickly.
The door opened, and at once, her heart lifted.
Appearance-wise, this girl was a definite improvement on the others - darkly pretty, fashionable verging on chic, but discreetly so. No pretensions above her station.
Dark eyes from under a very fetching hat regarded Darla with cool competence.
"Madame." The girl fetched her a small curtsey.
Darla held out her hand. "Your references."
"Of course, madame." Opening her reticule, the girl brought out a stiff white envelope, which she held out in one immaculately gloved hand.
The references, too, were impeccable. Marguerite Boucher, ladies' maid, highly recommended by the Vicomtesse de Noyac, whoever she might be, and by Mrs Ralph Armstrong of Boston, Massachusetts.
"You speak English?" Darla asked the question in French, but the answer came in English.
"Yes, madame. Very well."
That was both convenient, and not. Darla's French was fluent, of course, but there were times - mostly when she was tired - that she longed for the ease of her native tongue.
On the other hand, some things were better kept from the servants.
Darla eyed the girl again, enjoying the sight of her neat costume and elegantly styled hair. If she'd managed that on herself...
"I will expect you to accompany me abroad. Is that acceptable, or will family ties prevent you from leaving France?"
The girl kept her eyes demurely downcast under Darla's scrutiny.
"I have no family, madame." She looked up, shrewd dark gaze meeting Darla's. "Not any more."
Darla felt an unexpected pang at the revelation, which was ridiculous. Why should the girl's orphan state matter to her, who had orphaned so many others?
In fact, judging by the girl's cool, matter-of-fact manner, it seemed Darla cared about it more than she did herself.
Ah, of course.
"You can start immediately, then," Darla said, in a brisk tone. "Introduce yourself to the landlady's housemaid and tell her to light the gas lamps in here and make up the fire. Then you can do my hair."
She'd half-expected some protest, but Mam'selle Boucher merely curtseyed again and made for the door.
Darla watched her go, thinking that at least she would not have to invent some convoluted reason for the lack of mirrors in her apartment.
Alone again, she eyed Spike's letter. Perhaps, after all, one could manage without family. Or, alternatively, one could make a new one. The world was vast. Somewhere out there, Angelus's replacement must be waiting.
She picked up the letter, intending to tear it in pieces, but at the last moment, changed her mind and slid it into her desk drawer. She would write some kind of answer.
When she felt like it.
In retrospect, the girl's nature was obvious - so obvious Darla was disappointed with herself for not realising it the minute Marguerite had walked through the door. She must be more careful in future. One did not survive as long as she had without making enemies.
"So, Boucher," she said, "I presume the reason you have no family any more is because you killed them? Or are you, perhaps, the sentimental type and have simply outlived them all?"
Marguerite's response was a cool look and a very Gallic shrug.
"The former, madame. I have not a sentimental bone in my body."
The words were as coolly spoken as the look, but to Darla they sounded almost like a rebuke. She frowned.
"I assume your references are fake, then? Is Marguerite Boucher even your real name?"
"But of course, madame." Marguerite shrugged again. "I was...what is the English expression? Sired, yes? I was sired in America, while in the service of Mrs Armstrong." Her lips pursed in disapproval. "Not that my employer ever noticed."
"Really?" Darla found that hard to believe.
Again, the shrug. "Mais bien sur," Marguerite insisted. "Beyond complaining that my hands were cold, she had no notion anything had changed. Why should she? She had eyes only for herself when she looked in a mirror, and my skills as a ladies' maid were not affected."
"I suppose not." Darla had never given the matter much thought.
Marguerite, meanwhile, had turned her attention back to Darla's clothes, which were laid out ready for her to put on - corset, camisole and petticoat, silk stockings, rose pink silk gown with train, rose-trimmed hat, grey silk evening gloves.
"Madame is going out?"
Darla frowned again, annoyed by Marguerite's familiarity. This was why she preferred to have human servants. Her own kind were too inclined to have a high opinion of themselves.
"I have a table at Maxim's," she said, curtly. "Not that it's any of your business, girl."
Marguerite's expression didn't alter. "And will m'sieu be joining you?"
Darla had to take a deep breath to prevent herself slapping the girl. "There is no m'sieu, as I'm sure the housemaid has already informed you."
"But of course," Marguerite said, as if she had not just asked the question. "Madame is meeting someone, then? A gentleman, perhaps?"
Again, Darla considered slapping her, but something about the cool stare, the small white hands that had dealt so competently with her clothes and were even now adjusting the feathers on her hat to just the right angle, gave her pause. Vampire or human, good ladies' maids were hard to come by. Perhaps Marguerite was not entirely wrong to place some value on herself.
In the end, Darla said, "I certainly hope so. After all, one has to eat, does one not?"
There was a short silence. Then Marguerite smiled.
"Bien sur, madame. Good hunting." She held up Darla's corset. "Would you like me to dress you?"
Dark places for dark deeds.
Really, it would have been easier to do her hunting in a less salubrious part of the city, where penniless would-be writers and artists plied cheap, syphilitic whores with absinthe. But Darla would rather be dust in the wind than resort to such places.
The irony of her fastidiousness was not lost on her.
Finally seated at a small, inconspicuous table near the back of Maxim's grand saloon, a glass of champagne to hand, it wasn't long - as Darla had known it wouldn't be - before her solitary status began to attract attention. First, there were covert glances from the other female customers - many of them the better class of demimondaines, eyeing up potential rivals - soon followed by speculative stares from unattached men.
Darla made a show of glancing up at the clock, then towards the door and sighing. So far, she had never once had to order a second drink, and tonight was no exception.
"Are you waiting for someone, mademoiselle?"
The man standing over her was young, and handsome in a vapid kind of way. Darla smiled. Unless he turned out to be a crashing bore, hopefully the next few hours shouldn't be too unbearable.
"I believed so, m'sieu, but it appears the gentleman in question has had second thoughts." She held out her hand to him. "If you are not engaged elsewhere, please do join me."
For a moment, the young man hesitated - possibly, he disliked the idea of being seen picking up another man's leavings - but then he bowed over her hand and smiled.
"I would be delighted." He snapped his fingers at a passing waiter. "More champagne - and bring the menu."
Darla nodded and smiled in all the right places, but soon found her attention wandering, and in an unexpected direction. Back to when she'd been seated on her bed, dressed only in her undervest and corset, while Marguerite, kneeling at her feet, rolled a silk stocking up her leg.
Marguerite's lower lip was caught between her teeth in concentration. Her hands were cool and impersonal, the perfect ladies' maid. And yet the feel of her fingertips on the soft skin of Darla's inner thighs had been very erotic - so much so that Darla had felt the growing throb of arousal, like a drumbeat under her skin.
No point trying to hide it, of course. Marguerite would scent it on her. But tiresome all the same, not to mention somewhat humiliating.
No words were exchanged, but even so, as Marguerite's hand glanced against her breast while lacing up the damnable corset, Darla had felt a cold current leap between them, like lightning striking earth. When Marguerite pinned her hat in place, and stood back, eyeing her handiwork with a critical eye, Darla had found herself contemplating what it would be like to kiss her.
She had not done so, but the need to find out remained.
"Madame est tres belle," Marguerite said, at last, stepping back, and Darla had been almost caught out in a smile.
This would not do. It really would not do at all.
"If you need to feed," she said, trying to sound stern and distant, "remember the occupants of this house are off the menu. Look elsewhere. As far from here as you can."
Marguerite had fetched her another curtsey. "But of course, madame. I will be...discreet."
"Are you listening to me?" Armand Marchand's peevish tones intruded on Darla's thoughts, and she forced herself to smile at him.
"But of course, m'sieu. So interesting. Though I confess I have no head for politics."
Armand's lower lip had acquired a sulky adolescent pout, but at these words, it disappeared, to be replaced by an expression of smug condescension.
"Of course not, my dear. One should not expect it of a lady. More champagne?"
Darla forced out a girlish giggle. "How wicked you are, m'sieu, to tempt me. I fear I am already quite light headed."
Armand smiled. "No matter. It will be my pleasure to escort you safely home."
I'm sure it will, Darla thought. Hopefully, she would be done with Armand long before they reached her front door.
Suddenly, she longed to be back at her apartment- away from this callow fool and others of his sort - these wolves who preyed on women's weakness, thinking only of their own selfish gratification, and nothing of the misery and destruction they left behind them. Ravaged bodies, poverty, disease, and early death.
They thought themselves predators, but none of them was as great a predator as she, who could tear them limb from limb and feast on their living hearts when she was so inclined.
Darla's jaded gaze drifted from one table of fashionable revellers to another - all the same. The men puffed up and pompous like Armand, the women fawning on them and simpering into their fans. How she despised them all.
Rapists and whores, the lot of them.
I will sleep with Marguerite, Darla decided. Why should I not? Angelus is gone forever. Whose business is it but mine how I console myself? Her being a servant is no matter. Have I not risen from far more humble beginnings myself?
She leaned forward across the table, putting her deep décolletage on display for Armand's greedy gaze.
"I would like to go home now, M'sieu Armand. Will you take me?"
For a moment, Armand seemed mesmerized by the sight of creamy, exposed flesh, but then he recollected himself enough to look Darla in the eye and smile. "But of course." He snapped his fingers again at their waiter. "A cab, if you please."
The waiter's gaze slid from Armand to Darla and back again. He bowed to hide his smirk. "At once, m'sieu."
"Permit me..." he muttered, even while his importunate hand slid under her skirts, groping at her crotch.
There was no finesse in the boy. None at all.
Darla was tempted to break his neck there and then, but his rudeness had put her in the mood for live prey, and suddenly the whim took her to share him with Marguerite.
The girl might have fed already, of course, but no vampire on earth would reject the offer of an easy meal.
Armand would suffer for his assault upon her person. In the meantime, she must suffer his adolescent fumblings, which grew more insistent, until he was kneading her breasts through her gown and slavering on her lips.
At last, thoroughly exasperated, she reached out and gave the bulge at his crotch a firm squeeze, to be rewarded by a squeal of mixed surprise and horror and a spreading wet patch.
She could smell the delicious blood rushing to his face as he blushed in embarrassment.
"Tant pis, mon petit," she cooed in his ear. "We will be so much more comfortable by the time you are ready to do it again."
"My trousers," he spluttered, caught between lust and fury. "You whore. How dare you?"
She flicked her fingers carelessly. "It is no matter. My maid will clean them. In the meantime, m'sieu-" and she gazed deep into his eyes as she spoke -" you must punish me as you see fit."
At once, his eyes acquired a savage glitter. "Make no mistake, I will."
She opened her own eyes wide, all limpid false innocence. "So masterful. So strong."
Why, if she were not very much mistaken, the boy had a vicious streak that would do any vampire credit. A pity he was not better looking, and such dull company, or she might have considered turning him. As it was, it would be her great pleasure to shuffle him off this mortal coil, to the betterment of those still living and to public morality in general.
Even so, by the time they reached the apartment door, Darla was more than ready to be rid of him. For one thing, the fool had trodden on the train of her dress as they climbed the stairs and torn it quite badly.
Marguerite must have heard them approach. She opened the door, reacting hardly at all to the sight of unexpected company.
"Bonsoir, m'sieu." She dropped a curtsey as the boy thrust his coat, hat and gloves into her hands, then swept past her and settled himself on the chaise longue, as if the apartment were his by right of conquest.
Marguerite's eyes met Darla's. "Madame?"
"There is a cab driver waiting outside," Darla told her. "Please make sure he is very well paid indeed." Sotto voce, she added, "So much so that he cannot lead anyone to this house."
Marguerite's eyes sparked gold. "Of course, madame."
But as she made to slip through the door, Darla stayed her with a hand on her arm.
"Hurry back, Boucher. I've suffered this fool long enough."
Marguerite nodded. "Of course, madame."
In the end, Armand's behaviour proved so intolerable that Darla elected not to wait for Marguerite's return before overpowering him and trussing him up like a side of beef at the butchers'. After all, killing the cab driver and disposing of his corpse and vehicle was no simple matter and the girl might be some time, despite Darla's injunction.
She had no doubt that Marguerite could carry out the task, though, and return with not a hair out of place.
In the meantime, she waited, at ease on the chaise longue, frowning at the finger-shaped bruise marks on her wrist (Armand was stronger than he looked) and pressing one foot in its dainty high heeled shoe into the small of the young man's back. Armand, meanwhile, fussed and foamed around the wad of handkerchief in his mouth, trying to scream for help.
Darla was hungry now, and the smell of his terror was exquisite. But other appetites had become paramount.
When the quiet click of the apartment door heralded Marguerite's return, Darla took in with pleasure the light rose flush on the girl's pale cheeks, and the way her bosom heaved with the exertion.
"Why, Boucher, you look quite out of breath. Come, sit beside me until you recover yourself."
Marguerite betrayed any surprise she might have felt at such a request only by a slight flaring of her nostrils. Avoiding Armand's feet, which drummed an impotent tattoo on the carpet, she seated herself on the chaise longue, bolt upright, little white hands loose in her lap.
For a moment, she stared straight in front of her. Then she turned and looked Darla in the eye, her own eyes smouldering.
"Madame is so beautiful," Marguerite breathed, in an awed tone. Leaning forward, she kissed Darla full on the lips, her cold tongue darting inside Darla's mouth quick as a serpent's.
Marguerite's forwardness took Darla by surprise, but she soon recovered herself and kissed Marguerite back, crushing their mouths together as she pressed the other woman down into the chaise longue.
All Marguerite's sang froide was gone.
"Oh madame," she breathed. "Madame."
Clearly, Darla thought, her desire for the girl was not unreciprocated. Quite the opposite, in fact. And before long it became equally clear that this was far from the first time that Marguerite had pleasured another woman.
Soon, the air was filled with the musky scents of sex, while the furniture was strewn with discarded garments. Darla's corset was the last to go. Marguerite almost ripped it from her in her haste, then fell to her knees in front of her, pressing fervent kisses to her breasts, her thighs, the dark place between them with its neatly shaven triangle of hair.
As for Armand, they let him watch for a little while - the condemned man's last meal - before stripping him to the waist and hanging him from the bedroom chandelier by his ankles. A few applications of a wickedly sharp paring knife at wrist, elbow and neck, and he was left to bleed out into a bowl placed on the floor beneath him.
Which was just as well, as the night's exertions had left them both quite ravenous.
That said, it was quite the most delightful night that Darla had spent in years. As sleep finally claimed her, she found herself thinking that there was no reason on earth why Angelus's replacement had to be a man.
Not a night went by that they failed to make a kill, now in one part of town, now in another, but after Armand, none was allowed to sully their little nest with his presence. Disposing of the bodies was an inconvenience, n'est-ce pas? Also a potential danger in the unlikely event that the very stupid Parisian police traced Armand's movements to Darla's door and the housemaid identified him.
But, given there were no fang marks on the body that might suggest Armand's death had been more than ordinarily unnatural, it was far more likely that the police would blame the missing cab driver for the murder. A simple case of robbery gone wrong and subsequent flight of the culprit from the scene of the crime.
So Marguerite reassured Darla, and so it proved, judging by the story buried deep in the pages of Le Temps, the front of which was still much taken up with the political fall-out of the second Dreyfus trial.
Darla read the story aloud to Marguerite, as they lay naked on the fur rug in front of the fire, at the exact distance from it that was prudent while still keeping them warm. Their appetites were sated, their bodies sleek with stolen blood.
Marguerite laughed. "See, madame? I told you how it would be."
Darla was admiring the way the firelight brought out honey tones in Marguerite's pale skin, and cast deep, velvety shadows under her breasts and in the hollows of her oh, so tempting neck. "So you did."
The contented silence that followed was soon broken by moans and little sighs of pleasure.
"But what else can one expect?" Marguerite said suddenly, between gasping breaths. "The human cattle are so stupid. Fit for nothing save the slaughter."
Darla paused in the act of licking a cold trail from Marguerite's ear to the point of her jaw, to raise her head and frown.
"Perhaps, but don't forget, without humans there would be no vampires." She nuzzled at the soft, cool flesh. "One might say they are our parents, ma petite, and we their devil children."
Marguerite made a face. "Not so, madame. They are nothing but empty shells that we honour them by inhabiting. Their faces are masks we wear until the world grows more to our liking and we can walk abroad in our true faces."
Darla frowned. She had heard such sentiments aired before, but had not expected Marguerite to echo them.
"What do you know, Boucher?" she demanded. "As our kind reckon the years, you are a mere child." She glared at Marguerite. "Unless your sire taught you this. Who was he? Or her?"
There was a short, frosty silence. Then Marguerite took Darla's hand in hers and raised it to her lips.
"Forgive me, madame. I spoke out of turn. I did not mean to anger you. You are right that I am young, whereas you... "
Her face took on a dreamy expression.
"You have watched the centuries come and go. The things you must have seen. My great-grandfather was a soldier in Napoleon's Grand Armee. Did you ever meet the emperor? Was he as short as they say? And the dresses back then, they were tres gracieux, n'est-ce pas? You would have looked so beautiful."
Darla was well into a description of the Empire style white silk gown with the exquisite gold lace that she had worn to a ball not long after the Battle of Jena before she realised that Marguerite hadn't answered her question.
Humans were nothing but disgusting cattle, their poetry, their music, all the great things they had built, worthless. For a vampire to live as a human was an error verging on a sin. Vampires belonged with their own kind, making forays into the human world only to replenish their numbers and to satisfy their hunger.
It was all so very at odds with Marguerite the ladies' maid, steering her way so confidently through the human world, unperturbed by any demand, no matter how difficult, that Darla made of her. Darla desired the blood of a well-bred infant, or a fine jewel seen only at a distance around the neck of another; or maybe a night-time jaunt into the countryside, ending with a picnic on the lawn at Versailles? Marguerite could arrange them all without batting an eyelid, including disposing of the bodies afterwards.
With Marguerite by her side, Darla was sure, there would have been no need of a man's protection to attain her wishes, not even in Turkey or the Balkans. What's more, unlike Angelus, Marguerite had no masculine pride in constant need of appeasement and flattery.
This was the Marguerite she wanted, Darla decided; the one who listened, enthralled, to her tales of times past, who worshipped the ground she walked on, and whose skills as a lover were almost the equal of her own.
This was the Marguerite for whom Darla obtained (best not enquire how) a string of the most fabulous pearls, and who, dressed only in those pearls, lay writhing under her on the fur rug crying, "Encore, madame, encore," as Darla penetrated her with a dildo made of the smoothest indiarubber.
The other Marguerite, in thrall to the heroes of vampire lore - St Vigeous and the like - and who wished to abandon their room with a view for a den in some wretched corner of the catacombs - interested Darla not at all. In fact, she made her very suspicious.
How had Marguerite acquired such opinions, and from whom?
Darla had tried asking the girl directly but the result was always the same; evasive answers skilfully buried in matter meant to distract her, whether fashion, or society, or the latest scandal involving La Belle Otero.
And so far, Darla realised, she had allowed herself to be distracted. There was always something more important, more amusing, to think about, and Marguerite was so adept at finding it for her and offering it up like a gift.
Despite the fact, as was now apparent, that she held such human occupations in deep contempt.
Darla glanced up from the ladies' periodical she had been pretending to read, to where Marguerite stood peering out from behind the curtains, at the last dregs of a fiery winter sunset fading from the sky above the Parisian rooftops.
The girl was intent, gaze fixed on something outside.
Darla watched her, prey to warring emotions - lust, suspicion, and a sudden raging fury. Suddenly, without a shadow of a doubt, she knew that Marguerite was playing her, and she...
Well, she had been so lonely, so sunk in...yes, she might as well admit it, in grief for Angelus's loss, that she had allowed herself to be played.
This child, this upstart, had made a fool of her.
Darla looked down at the page again, lest Marguerite see the fury in her face, or - even worse - the single tear sliding down her cheek. How she despised herself for such weakness.
All these years - all these centuries - and this was the first time she'd suffered the pain and humiliation of betrayal.
You inflict it on others, Darla. You don't suffer it yourself.
Well, it wouldn't happen again. Love was for fools and their mad consorts, not for women like her.
When she felt she had herself sufficiently under control again, she rose smoothly to her feet, crossed to the window and set her arms about Marguerite's slender waist.
"What are you looking at, ma petite?"
Marguerite turned her head and smiled. "The sky, madame. It glows, does it not, like a gateway into hell?"
Darla clicked her tongue at her, as you might at a stupid infant.
"Have you ever seen a gateway into hell, Boucher?"
Marguerite's eyes widened a little in awe. "Why no, madame. But you have?"
"Many times." Darla let her arms drop. "And believe me, they look nothing like a sunset. Is my bath drawn yet?"
"I will go and see." Marguerite bustled away in the direction of the bathroom, leaving Darla alone.
The sunset had faded into blue dusk, filling the street with shadows. Even so, Darla was careful not to stand too close to the window, for fear of a final stray gleam. But, she was still close enough to see when one of the shadows moved. A huge shape, hulking and masculine, detached itself from the pool of darkness farthest from the street lamps and, with remarkable stealth for its size, slid into the alleyway between two tall apartment buildings opposite, promptly vanishing.
Darla shivered. It had been centuries but she would know that shape anywhere.
She frowned. It all made sense now.
Her instinct was to confront Marguerite immediately, but she forced herself to wait - to pretend that nothing was wrong - until she was at least dry and dressed in her fine Chinese silk robe. The feel of it against her skin brought melancholy thoughts to mind this evening, along with a return of the despairing fury she had felt on realising that Angelus was lost to her once and for all.
Damn him and his filthy soul. Damn him forever.
"Why did you leave me?" she wanted to shout at him. "Why did you leave me to be preyed on by this lying, ungrateful bitch?"
But Angelus was gone for good. She must shift for herself now. Besides, it was no one's fault but her own that Marguerite had slipped through her defences when every instinct she possessed had been screaming at her to keep the girl in her place.
"So," she said, as Marguerite's steady hand dragged the brush through her hair, leaving it smooth and soft as silk, "is Luke your sire, or are you the Master's, as I am? Are we sisters, Boucher?"
The only sign that Marguerite was taken aback by her words was a brief pause between one brush stroke and the next. Then Marguerite said, "Neither, madame. I am not worthy of such honour. But I was sired by one of the Master's court, and at the Master's direction."
Darla turned to look at her. Marguerite's face was inscrutable.
"For what purpose?"
"Why, madame?" Marguerite shrugged, as if it should be obvious. "To bring you home, of course. To the Master, where you belong."
Darla had not seen her sire in decades, and on the last occasion, they hadn't parted on the best of terms. The Master had made it clear that his patience with her was running out, and that her favoured position at his side was in jeopardy if she did not soon return there for good.
Even so, she'd gone back to Angelus in London, and once again, the Master had let her go. He wanted her to come back to him willingly, he said, or not at all.
And look how that turned out. Better to have stayed with him and saved yourself all this anguish.
Pushing the thought to the back of her mind, she said, to Marguerite,
"And what if I don't want to go?"
Marguerite's steady brushstrokes never faltered. Darla was sure her hair had never been so soft or looked so lustrous.
"But madame, why would you not go?" Marguerite said, in a reasonable tone. "M'sieu has abandoned you, so I'm told, as the Master predicted he would. What is there to keep you here?"
The oblique mention of Angelus filled Darla with fury.
"How dare you, Boucher. And what do you know anyway? He didn't abandon me. He was snatched from me. We would still be together if it weren't for those...those..."
Words failed her.
"Whatever you say, madame." Marguerite placed the pompadour frame on Darla's head and began to backcomb her hair over it. After a moment, she said, "The Master keeps a fine court in America. He favours you still. If you go to him, he would make you queen of it."
"My sire is in America? Why on earth would he go there?" It was hard to imagine the Master returning to such a brash, youthful country with no history yet to speak of without a very good reason.
"The Master has dedicated himself to serving the Old Ones, madame, as you know," Marguerite said, busy with hairpins. "There was a prophecy that they would rise again in the New World, so that is where he has gone."
"You know a great deal of the Master's business for such a lowly member of his court," Darla said, making no effort to hide the sneer in her voice.
Marguerite seemed untroubled by it. "I know as much as I need to know, madame, in order to complete my task." After a moment, she added, "America is not such a bad place. I was sired in Boston, madame, remember?"
"So you were." Darla glanced over her shoulder at Marguerite again. "I assumed it was a lie, Boucher, like so much else you've told me."
"I've told you no lies, madame," Marguerite said, still in the same reasonable tone. "Not even one. Tell me when I have lied to you?"
Darla turned her face away. The girl was right, of course. She had never spoken an untrue word during their time together. But some lies went deeper than words.
"Did you ever feel for me at all?" Darla wondered, though again, she left the question unspoken. Marguerite had too much power over her already. Besides, hadn't the girl said she had not a sentimental bone in her body?
"America is where my human life was ended, did you know?" she said. "Both my cradle and my grave, you might say. I'm not sure I'm ready to go back yet."
"Yes, madame, you told me," Marguerite said, still busy pinning. "You also told me that the Master was a far kinder father to you than your human one."
Darla's human father had sold her to a brothel at the age of twelve. All she remembered about him now was how hard he could hit.
"Believe me, Boucher, that was not difficult."
Marguerite had finished with Darla's hair and was brushing down her hat - a complicated task, given the amount of ornament and tulle veiling involved.
"I don't understand you, madame," Marguerite said. "When you left your sire for this man - this Angelus - the Master indulged you. But Angelus is gone now, and your sire worries about you. Come home to him, and let him look after you again."
Darla bristled all over at these words. Surging to her feet, she rounded on Marguerite."How dare you, girl. I survived a hundred years and more before I sired Angelus as a companion. I can survive without him now too. I don't need anyone to...to look after me."
Marguerite only smiled, cool and unmoved. "That is not my experience, madame."
Her answer stunned Darla into silence, while a small voice inside her head wailed, it's true. There were other voices too, demanding her attention. One wanted to know why she didn't just do as Marguerite suggested. Your sire loves you. He always has. Why not go back to him? It would be so much easier.
But louder than both these voices was a third. Why is Luke here?
Luke was another man with a very hard fist. What's more, the Master favoured him as much as he did Darla. His right-hand, he called him. The rock on which his church was founded. Darla was afraid of him.
Everyone was afraid of him.
Forcing herself to stay calm, Darla sat down again.
"My hair is not secure. Do it again, Boucher, and hurry."
"Yes, madame." Marguerite removed hair pins and pompadour and set to brushing again, and, for the first time in many years, Darla found herself wishing that vampires had reflections, so she might watch Marguerite's face in a mirror.
"You didn't answer my question," she said. "What if I decide I don't want to go?"
There was a brief silence, during which Darla steeled herself not to turn around.
"I would not advise it, madame," Marguerite said, at last. Her voice was cold, like her fingers.
"I understand you," Darla said. "If you cannot persuade me, then it will be Luke's turn."
"Just so," Marguerite replied. After a moment, she added, "But I would not like that, madame. This Luke - he is a brute, n'est pas?" Her mouth was close to Darla's ear suddenly, cool breath ghosting on her flesh, voice glib and persuasive. "I would not like it, chere madame, if he hurt you."
But you wouldn't try to stop him, Darla thought.
Not that anyone could. If Luke were a natural being, one might call him a force of nature.
"How long?" she asked.
"M'sieu Luke gave me until the end of this week to persuade you, madame," Marguerite said. "So tomorrow, he will come for you, no matter what you decide."
"And these are the Master's orders, are they?"
There was silence. After a moment, Darla turned to face Marguerite again.
"Well, Boucher? Are they?"
Marguerite's shrug struck Darla as a little uneasy this time. Sensing a weakness at last, she reached out and grasped Marguerite's wrist, squeezing so hard that Marguerite dropped the hair brush with a cry of pain.
"Answer me, girl, this minute." Darla squeezed harder.
Marguerite's face worked. After a moment, she gasped out,
"The Master wished you to come of your own free will. M'sieu Luke has other ideas."
So the Master hadn't sanctioned her removal from Paris by force? Quite the opposite, in fact.
Abruptly, Darla let go of Marguerite's wrist.
"And what will become of you, Boucher," she asked, "when Luke turns up on my doorstep?"
Marguerite was nursing her bruised wrist, but she managed another shrug. "I failed so he will kill me, I suppose." Her expression was stoic, but Darla could smell her fear.
Good. Let the bitch tremble.
Her thoughts were in turmoil. Discovering that her sire was still prepared to indulge her recalcitrance made her yearn for him suddenly, just as, it seemed, he yearned for her. But mostly when she thought of him, she felt the jaws of a trap swinging shut.
The Master's power could not be denied. Darla was sure it had cost him very little effort to turn even one as worldly as Marguerite into a zealot for his cause.
Once she was back with him, Darla knew, there would be no leaving him again, and after a while, she wouldn't even want to. She would learn to see the human world as he did. Like him, she would be on her knees, praying to the Old Ones to return and make this world their charnel house. And if they ever did return, like him, she would kiss their feet and scrabble amidst the rubble of human bones for scraps of their favours.
Darla repressed a shudder. She was not ready for that. Not yet. Nor was she ready to be dragged home like an errant child by a brute like Luke.
She forced herself to smile at Marguerite. "Don't fear, ma petite. I won't let Luke hurt you."
As the words sank in, a slow smile of triumph spread across Marguerite's face.
"You will go to the Master?" Marguerite exclaimed. She turned, as if to leave the room. "I will send to M'sieu Luke at once."
"Stop." Darla caught her by the hand, more gently this time. "We still have time. Luke can wait until tomorrow."
She drew Marguerite towards her and down into her lap. Then she kissed her on the lips, long and tender, until Marguerite's mouth melted under hers, and she felt small, cool hands reach inside her robe to fondle her breasts.
Even now, knowing how false she was, Darla found herself moaning into Marguerite's mouth, and her nipples peaking through the thin silk, while wetness gathered at her crotch. She made no effort to resist when Marguerite slid off her lap onto her knees in front of her, positioned her hips on the edge of the chair and gracefully bent her head.
"Why should I?" Darla thought, as she guided the girl's lips and tongue where she wanted them to go. "She owes me this much for making such a fool of me."
But as she thought it, Darla reached behind her, careful to make no sudden movements that would betray her intentions. Opening the drawer of her dressing table, she took a firm grip on the wooden stake she kept concealed there.
There was no way of knowing whether Luke stood sentinel outside the house all night, or had others to do it for him. Either way, leaving by the front door was impossible.
She frowned. She would have to leave everything behind, except what she could carry in her reticule. So, jewellery and cash, until she could find someone reliable to turn the former into the latter. Marguerite's pearls alone should buy her a first class ticket on the Orient Express.
Marguerite would have known where to take them, where women would not be cheated the small voice in her head commented, but again, she ignored it. Instead, she busied herself with dressing - all in black this time, and plain enough to survive an escape over the rooftops. In her experience, widows' weeds usually kept the curious at a respectful distance.
She gave up trying to fasten the wretched corset after a fourth failed attempt. She would damn well do without, she decided, until the wheels of fashion turned in a more sensible direction.
Instead, she placed a cigarette in an ivory holder in her mouth, lit it with a match then sat down at her writing desk, the smell of phosphor still in her nostrils. She smoked for a while, listening to the silence in the apartment, until she realised she was listening for the sounds of Marguerite going about her cool, competent business.
With an exclamation of fury, Darla wrenched open the drawer of the writing desk and drew out Spike's letter. As her eyes scanned the contents again, she could have sworn she heard Marguerite's knowing laugh just behind her.
"I knew you could not manage alone, madame," Marguerite said, but when Darla turned to survey the room, it was still empty.
Of course it is, you fool.
Shaking, Darla set the letter down. For a moment, she rested her head in her hands. Then, furious yet again at her own weakness, she picked the letter up, once more meaning to tear it to shreds.
"I don't need them," she told herself. "I don't need Marguerite. I don't need anyone."
"Menteuse," Marguerite said, so clearly Darla sprang to her feet and turned, expecting to see the girl right behind her. "Liar."
But there was no one there. A leaden silence fell. Then the curtains fluttered in the wind, almost as if someone had opened a window and gone out.
A shiver ran down Darla's spine, but the room felt empty now. There was no one here save herself.
Even so, she addressed Marguerite.
"You're right, damn you, Boucher. But being weak doesn't make me a fool. Never burn bridges you might need to cross one day."
Taking a blank sheet of paper out of the drawer, she dipped her pen in the inkwell and wrote Spike a brief note, telling him to meet her in Venice.
The second letter she wrote was far more important - a fawning missive to her sire, begging his further indulgence. Much as she yearned to see his face, she needed a little more time to settle her worldly affairs.
She would stay out of the trap a little longer, and perhaps before the Master's patience ran out it would begin to seem like no trap at all.
When both envelopes were sealed and addressed, she wrote a third note, this one for Luke, and only one line long.
New York, in fifty years.
He would know what she meant, and if he had any sense would know better than to follow her without the Master's express orders.
All three letters would be left with the housemaid, with strict instructions to post the one addressed to Istanbul and to give the others to the large gentleman who would call at the house tomorrow evening, and who she must on no account invite inside.
Casting her eye around the empty apartment one last time, Darla thought she had been happy there, after a fashion. But now she was alone again.
In fact, she always had been.